Sunday, October 2, 2011

Weekend Roundup: "50/50," "What's Your Number?", "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil"


50/50 (2011)
99 min., rated R.
Grade: A

Who knew a movie about the "the big C" could be funny? Not the disease itself, but one young man's response to cancer and the acceptance of his own mortality. Half-tragedy ancd half-comedy, "50/50" avoids the sudsy trappings of a disease-of-the-week telepic and treads a tricky tightrope, making it some kind of wonderful. Screenwriter Will Reiser penned the script, based on his own rare diagnosis when he was in his early 20s and gained support from his friend Seth Rogen (yes, that same one). The film doesn't have to inundate us with "inspired by a true story" as a subtitle or in the marketing, even though it is an autobiographical piece. 

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a timid 27-year-old sound editor for Seattle Public Radio, is the least likely candidate to have health problems. He exercises, doesn't drink or smoke, and has no driver's license since a car accident is in the top leading causes of death. Life throws him a curveball when a check-up with the doctor for his recent back problems turns into an astonishing diagnosis: Adam has a malignant tumor on his spine. As the doc drones on with medical jargon into a tape recorder and little eye contact, the news is still sinking into Adam. In his most painful hour of greatest need, his live-in artist girlfriend, Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), clearly can't handle it and eventually shows her true colors. When he sits down his smothering, chronically worried mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston), to tell her the news, Adam starts with "Have you ever seen 'Terms of Endearment'?" and Diane immediately makes it about her. When Adam tells his work and outside-of-work buddy, Kyle (Seth Rogen), the response is, "If you were a casino game, you would have the best odds." Kyle takes it as a ploy to get he and his buddy laid, but even sex has lost its spark. Shocked but confused on how to feel, Adam checks in with Katie (Anna Kendrick), a 24-year-old therapist-in-training whose warmth and wisdom makes up for her inexperience. Everyone reacts differently, but no one knows how Adam truly feels. 

Time and again, Gordon-Levitt proves he's extraordinary in independent and mainstream fare. Here, in what feels like a bit of both worlds, he is tender, vulnerable, and completely relatable. Shaving his head for real and in one take, the actor never has a melodramatic break-down scene, but his vulnerability is gut-wrenchingly real. There is a heartbreaking scene, however, where Adam gets behind the wheel of a car, is beside himself, and screams out of frustration. Rogen, slimming down after his lovable teddy-bear phase, still uses his bluntly crass wit, but shows a concern and generosity for his friend behind the felatio jokes. Adam and Kyle's friendship is a true bromance. Proving her ace turn in "Up in the Air" was no fluke, Anna Kendrick is just as wonderful again, bringing her comic briskness and a sense of terrified innocence/inexperience to Katherine. Huston affectingly turns the overprotective mom role of Diane into a nuanced woman coping with a lot (an Alzeimer's-stricken husband and a son with cancer). In one therapy session with Adam, Kendrick's Katherine makes an astute assumption without even meeting Diane: Adam's mom takes on a husband who can't talk to her and a son who won't talk to her. In a tricky spot, Howard could have been boxed-in as a one-dimensional shrew, but she makes her emotions and actions believable and morally complex. When Adam gives her freedom to just leave him, figuring his condition would be too much for her to handle, Rachael makes it worse by trying hard to care; she even feels uncomfortable entering the hospital for his chemotherapy. Phillip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer are also darkly amusing and down-to-earth as two older cancer patients that show him the perks to their mutual disease with medicinal marijuana. 

"50/50" beats the odds, tackling such a tough subject as cancer and never ringing false for a beat. Navigating a pitch-perfect mixture of tones and character shadings, director Jonathan Levine (whose eclectic credits include 2008's coming-of-ager "The Wackness" and 2006's retro-horror film "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane") finds the truth, pathos, and humor in the situation. It's sensitive without being maudlin and funny without overpowering the emotion. Levine and the cast make the mood swings feel effortlessly smooth, never forced. The characters feel real because, like in most grievous situations, no one knows what to say or how they should act. Since Reiser wrote the fictionalized but personal script, we know there's no 50/50 chance for the ending to conclude at a funeral, but it's a satisfyingly sweet one. Humorously prickly, profoundly moving, and emotionally true, "50/50" is quite the balanced package. 


What's Your Number? (2011)
106 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

Anna Faris has such comedic know-how and fearlessness that she's capable of elevating material that isn't always there. She headlined four "Scary Movie" spoofs, hijacked "Just Friends" in a supporting role with her go-for-broke energy, still stood high even after her unfunny stoner farce "Smiley Face," and proved herself able to carry "The House Bunny." She can play a dumb character but still emerge as a smart comedienne. It's all in her timing and her rubbery face. Whatever the quality of the movie, Faris goes for it every time. "What's Your Number?" might not equal the comedy darling, but she makes it better than it has any right to be. 

Faris plays Ally Darling, a Boston thirtysomething who's just been canned from her marketing job. Thereafter, she reads a statistical article in a Marie Claire magazine that the average woman has 10.5 sexual partners and that anyone who has slept with 20 or more guys will remain eternally single. Ally's magic number is 19, and she thinks that's low. Just in time for her perfect sister Daisy's (Ari Graynor) engagement party, Ally takes a poll with her circle of friends and realizes 19 is rather high. Make that 20 after she gets drunk and wakes up alongside her ex-boss (Joel McHale). Deciding she'll become celibate, Ally aims to track down all of her exes to see if she let Mr. Right slip away. Across the hall, she has some help along the way from her hunky man-whore of a neighbor, Colin (Chris Evans). You won't have to read Karyn Bosnak's novel, "20 Times a Lady," to know where this ends up. 

When we first meet Ally, it's nearly identical to the opening scene in "Bridesmaids," where she wakes up next to her boyfriend Rick (Zachary Quinto) and goes to the bathroom to make herself up before sliding back into bed next to him. On paper, it's not impenetrable to see why Ally is still a single gal, or as she describes herself, "a jobless whore who's slept with 20 guys." Instead of actually going to a job interview, she's hung up on her list of lovers and finding her Mr. Right, as if that'll get her anywhere or allow her to pay for her apartment. So despite Miss Darling's promiscuity and her questionable priorities, Faris makes lemonade out of a lemon of a script. Even with the underwritten Colin, Evans' good looks and innate charisma help a great deal. The two have a fun, loose chemistry together that we believe they can only be themselves around one another. When he sets up lights in Ally's apartment to showcase her quirky hobby of urban dioramas sculpted out of clay, it's a sweet moment. 

Director Mark Mylod, who's had a long stint working in TV, is only on his second feature and it shows through some of the leaden pacing, but there are blessedly no gross-outs beyond the raunchy, female-spoken dialogue from Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden's script. On-location shooting in Boston is also a nice scenic change of pace from all the New York City-based romantic comedies. 

It all goes back to the stars, especially Faris. An adorably daffy and offbeat comedienne by trade, she wrings laughs by pratfalling, butchering a British accent that slowly deteriorates into Borat territory, and in one brief, irrelevant bit, hitting her asleep leg after getting off a train. A line from Faris even seems self-aware of the situational absurdity she's in (and romantic-comedy foregone conclusions) after racing all over Boston to find her man. Supporting Faris, there's a delightfully shrewish Blythe Danner as Ally and Daisy's mother who's all about appearances and never satisfied, and Ed Begley Jr. is amusing as their dad, divorced from Mom and trying too hard to be cool. The exes include formerly overweight Disgusting Donald (Chris Pratt), British Simon (Martin Freeman), puppeteer Gerry Perry (Andy Samberg), gay politician Tom (Anthony Mackie), and gynecologist Dr. Barrett Ingold (Thomas Lennon), but only some of Ally's run-ins with them are amusing, leaving comic possibilities untapped.

If it weren't for Faris and Evans, "What's Your Number?" would be less fun to watch as a contrived, by-the-numbers romantic comedy. 



Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2011)
89 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Any savvy horror fan will tell you that a gas station in the sticks is a sure sign of trouble for a van full of nubile teens or that all hillbillies with bad orthodontia and backwoods digs are cannibalistic psycho killers. For the writing-directing debut of actor Eli Craig, son of Sally Field, "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" flips that cynical, xenophobic notion on its head into a good-spirited, cheerfully blood-soaked goof. So what if those cretinous mountain men in "Deliverance" or that flesh-eating clan from "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" were, in actuality, harmless, good-hearted teddy bears that just like to drink beer and play board games? 

On a camping trip in West Virginia, an SUV stocked with preppy frat boys and their groupies are quick to judge the hillbillies at a country gas station to pick up beer. At the same lake, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are a couple of backwoods buddies on their way to their vacation home to fix it up and do some fishing. When the kids go skinnydipping where Tucker and Dale are night-fishing, Allison (Katrina Bowden), the nice farm girl of the bunch, knocks herself unconscious. The doofuses rescue her out of the water, but the college interlopers misconstrue it as kidnap; they're too stupid to know that these yokels are actually just Good Samaritans, and Tucker and Dale are completely clueless without realizing it's a whole misunderstanding. As smitten Dale nurses Alli back to health inside the cabin, her friends perch outside to get their revenge on their friend's captors and rescue her. But in their effortful attempts, they die one by one . . . all on their own, like a suicidal massacre. 

Craig and co-writer Morgan Jurgenson have conceived a cute premise that dishes out most slasher-movie clich├ęs and reverses conventions with tongue-in-cheeky twists. One kid impales himself into a sharp tree branch after running from a chainsaw-wielding Tucker, who's running away from a nest of bees. Another leaps at one of Alli's supposed attackers and lands into a woodchipper. The misunderstandings and gag "kills" are crazily over-the-top to earn giddy chuckles, even if the good vs. evil climax could've been punchier. As most one-joke movies go, the joke runs thin by the end, but it's a pretty clever one that keeps the energy up for a good while. 

This horror-comedy of errors strikes a consistently enjoyable tone that's never outright spoofy, and the enthusiastic cast plays stupid well. Ready for their own dumb-and-dumber buddy comedy, Tudyk and Labine make such a likable, good-natured duo with perfect comic timing and plenty of heart. As jackass leader Chad, Jesse Moss transforms from obnoxious, collar-popping frat boy to demented evil incarnate (the real latter part of the title). Chellan Simmons stands out as perpetually smoking bimbo Chloe who repeatedly gets a blood shower when her friends start dying. Because of Bowden as Allison and her budding relationship with Labine's Dale, there's a surprising sweetness that leavens the silliness and gore. 

"Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" is infectious fun, something the recent "Creature" was utterly not, and there's even a universal moral: don't judge a book by its cover. 

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